Ecocritical approach to the novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most famous novels written by J. D. Salinger. The novel is considered to be controversial to this day, although it was published in the United States in 1951, for its liberal profanity and portrayal of sexuality and teenage angst. In fact, it was the thirteenth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s according to the American Library Association. (American Library Association, 2003) Moreover, the novel has become one of the most conspicuous literary pieces of the 20th century. In addition, the novel has been selected by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present. (American Library Association, 2003) This novel can be analyzed from an ecocritical perspective, in other words, this approach questions whether nature depicted in it was good and peaceful or bad, mysterious, and vicious, what attitudes towards nature and what technological impact it features, the way the environment influences the character. Finally, the natural symbols and weather seasons affect plot and actions of characters.
In terms of structure, The Catcher in the Rye is built on as a series of unrelated short stories. In fact, Salinger's affection for that form explains the pacing and relative lack of narrative continuity in the novel. For instance, no setting or character recurs for more than one or two consecutive chapters. The first chapters of the novel, which are all set at Pencey, are the only ones that remain the same characters and setting for an extended period. As narrator, Holden is the only character who recurs throughout the entire story, as characters such as Sally Hayes and Mr. Antolini appear only in one chapter and then basically disappear. In addition, as Salinger integrates thematic elements throughout the novel (in practically every chapter Holden complains about phony world), many of the chapters can essentially stand as short stories in themselves.
J.D. Salinger starts The Catcher in the Rye with a bold and sarcastic declaration. His main character immediately refuses the idea that the events that he illustrates in the novel belong to his life story or that this story is indicative of any larger message. He avoids the Dickensian idea of literature, in which plot points and narrative progression serve a moral end, but chooses a discursive style with no concrete message. Salinger resists the idea that The Catcher in the Rye serves an instructive end or acts as a cautionary tale; rather, as Holden insists, it is a tale that exists independent of any larger meaning or message.
Even though Holden insists that his story serves no larger purpose, in this first chapter Salinger establishes several conventions of this tale. Holden indicates that he has to get used to being at a new place, strongly implying that he now is found receiving psychiatric help. In fact, details of Holden's life indicate that he is following an aimless and self-destructive path. Expelled from school for failing several classes, Holden essentially thinks of himself as of a perpetual failure. To make things worse, in his failings he takes a complete disregard for others. Such self-destruction makes him unable to realize the consequences of his actions and the gravity of situation. For instance, as he loses the fencing equipment on the trip to New York, he is unable to comprehend that his action was irresponsible; instead, he concentrates on how he feels his mistake, which he insists is not his fault, is humorous.
Ecocritical perspective also stresses out Holden's fixation on Stradlater's behavior. Holden has an eye for nuances and the details of Stradlater's behavior; he even analyzes the rhythm of the conversation that the two have when Stradlater asks Holden to write a paper for him. Stradlater is shown as conceited and self-centered, obsessed with his appearance and image. Despite the fact that Holden does not employ his standard term phony to describe Stradlater in this chapter, he makes it clear that Stradlater exemplifies a strong sense of artificiality. As Holden suggests, Stradlater is "Yearbook" handsome, maintaining that his attractive appearance is best shown in photographs and is therefore divorced from Stradlater's actual self. Moreover, Salinger makes the distinction between appearances and actuality when Holden describes Stradlater's razor, which proves that Stradlater is only concerned with matters that relate to his public persona. Stradlater combines vanity with a strong egotism. He cannot even remember the name of his date that evening, and expects Holden to write his paper for him simply because he asked.
While Stradlater is vapid and superficial, Holden proves himself equally so by detailing each of these aspects of his roommate's behavior with such precision. In other words, the environment he is in forces him to behave in such a way. Holden does not let any slight against him go unnoticed, such as Stradlater's use of his jacket and his hair gel. Like Stradlater, Holden has a narrow focus; however, his self-centered behavior does not center on physical appearance as it does with Stradlater. Both use others as means to a particular end. Stradlater uses Holden for favors such as writing papers, while Holden uses Ackley for amusement. Apart from the cynical self-absorption, Holden may be a talented and intelligent writer who fails to apply his talent and skill to tasks. Holden continues to behave erratically, influenced by the environment. He does things purely out of impulse, such as giving Stradlater a half nelson. Such type of behavior will continue throughout the novel on a greater scale.
Later on, Salinger would gibe the first major indication of the source of Holden Caulfield's psychological troubles when he describes the composition that Holden writes for Stradlater. Holden elaborates on his family history, telling about how his brother died of leukemia. This may be one of the events that have caused Holden's current psychological troubles; even though as narrator Holden seems to resist such simplistic interpretations. No matter what caused his difficulties, the paper does reveal that Allie's death is still a major concern for Holden and that the erratic and often violent behaviour that Holden demonstrates during the course of his tale has a precedent. Holden's deep cynicism and negative attitudes are reinforced. Holden rarely describes an event without caustic comment, whether noting Ackley's lies or the Pencey dinner menu.
Towards the end of the novel Holden becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional, the last one in which he recounts his tale. Throughout the last chapters he acts under the assumption that he will not survive much longer, as when he is convinced that he will not get to the other side of the street. Holden's observations become increasingly random and disjointed, as when he obsesses over profane graffiti on the school. Holden's obsession with the profanity is notable, for it shows his distaste for anything that may corrupt the innocence of children. Holden wishes to protect children from any adult experiences, revealing his own fear of maturity. That’s an indication of good impact of environment on the character. Salinger upholds this aspect of Holden's character by portraying Holden watching Phoebe on the carousel.
Even though Holden decides to leave New York after seeing Phoebe for once last time, he has no definitive plan of action. His behavior proves to have a tenuous grip on sanity. Holden tries to reject society altogether, proposing extreme ideas such as pretending to be a deaf-mute, and appears barely in control of himself throughout the chapter. His physical health begins to reflect his emotional state; he suffers from illness that renders him less than lucid and even loses consciousness. In the last pages of the book Holden finds himself completely broken down both physically and emotionally, comforted only by the sight of Phoebe and her simple, childish pleasures.
Salinger leaves the actual events of Holden's presumed suicide attempt and hospitalization unknown to the reader; Holden only uses euphemisms such as "getting sick" to describe what has happened to him, yet the implications are apparent. Yet even more ambiguous than what happened to Holden is whether or not Holden will recover from his difficulties. Holden seems to harbor some sense of regret over what has happened; he claims that he even misses Stradlater and Ackley, and has used the telling of his story as a form of penitence for his behavior. Nonetheless, while looking back on his situation Holden still harbors some of the same suspicions and deep cynicism that afflicted him throughout the novel, as shown when he dismisses the question whether or not he will apply himself. Salinger ends the narration inconclusively: he gives no strong indication what Holden has benefited from his difficulties, if he has learned at all, and allows for a strong possibility that Holden will continue his self-destructive and suicidal behavior.
Overall, the novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an epitome of teenage alienation and fear. Written in the first person, The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden's experiences in New York City in the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a college preparatory school. The tragic death of Holden's younger brother makes the sadness and anger associated with "teen angst" even more apparent, and, perhaps, even makes him mentally ill. J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is about a disturbed teenager who refuses to grow up. Holden Caulfield is the protagonist and narrator of the story. Holden is seventeen when he begins the story, but was sixteen years old when the events took place. (Salinger, 1951, p. 9) His narration begins with his expulsion (for academic failure) from a school called Pencey Prep. An intelligent and sensitive person, Holden tells the story in a cynical and worn voice. He finds the hypocrisy, phoniness and ugliness of the world around him impossible to handle, and through his cynicism he tries to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the adult world. At the same time, the criticisms that Holden finds in people around him can be likewise attributed to him. He feels uncomfortable with his own weaknesses, and sometimes is unsure if he displays the exact phoniness, meanness, and superficiality of the people he says he despises. Throughout the book, Holden tries to hold on to the qualities of childhood and the innocence it provides, thus being vicious and peaceful at the same time.
Holden's extremely judgmental behavior and idealism are obvious pieces of evidence that demonstrate that he is disturbed. Holden begins the novel by criticizing his older brother, D.B., who is a Hollywood writer (thus, in Holden's mind, a "sell-out") since D.B. has abandoned a career in serious literature in search of fame and fortune as a screenwriter. Holden would like his brother to write the next "great American novel", regardless of the fact that such an option makes no financial sense. Holden's idealistic notion that his brother should become the cliché of the starving artist for the literary acclaim rather than the financial reward prove Holden's childish fantasies and poor logic.
Moreover, Holden criticizes his brother only as he does not satisfy his idealistic image of a writer. Apart from criticizing his brother for the wrong reasons, he repeatedly criticizes the entire world around him by calling people boring, insecure, and, his favorite insult – phony. Readers can see the technological impact on the character. Holden even goes to the extent of loathing the entire adult world, wishing that childhood were permanent. He secretly hopes that he could preserve the innocence in children by becoming the catcher in the rye.
From an ecocritical perspective, in this part nature is reflected in the main character in a certain way. Holden imagines a rye field full of frolicking children, overlooking a cliff, where, literarily, he wants to prevent the children from falling over the cliff, but, metaphorically, he wants to prevent (literally catch) the children from falling prey to the evils of the adult world. Holden is also captivated by the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History, which have not changed since he was a child. Such a disturbed idealist, he is sure that his own life would not change. In particular, the character wants to return to the carefree days of childhood. After visiting the museum or turning to nature, Holden still criticizes the adult world, which demonstrates the vicious attitude towards everything around him he has. Holden's judgmental approach to the world reveals just how disturbed he is. His reluctance to open his mind and become more accepting of those around him unravel his immaturity.
In his psychological battle, life continues on around Holden as it always had, with the majority of people ignoring the madman stuff that is happening to him - until it begins to intrude on their well defined social codes. Progressively through the novel readers are challenged to think about society's attitude to the human condition. In other words, as ecocritical perspective suggests, society either has an ostrich in the sand mentality or a deliberate ignorance of the emptiness that dominates human existence. When Caulfield begins to probe and investigate his own sense of emptiness and isolation, before finally declaring that he world is full of phonies with each one out for their own phony gain, scholars question themselves whether it is Holden that is going insane, or is it society which has lost it's mind for failing to see the hopelessness of their own lives.
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger used symbolism throughout the novel. Three major symbols were connected with nature and its impact on the character: the ducks, the Museum of Natural History, and Jane Gallagher. They all represent Holden in a way, and Salinger uses these symbols skilfully to convey an important message to the readers.
The main character, Holden, reflects nature, and, in turn, nature reflected in him. While Holden is wandering around New York City, he asks many people about what happens to the ducks in the pond when it freezes. Indeed, this attitude towards nature symbolizes Holden. He isn’t really wondering about the ducks, he is wondering about himself and his life path. He wants to know what will happen to him when the weather gets really cold. He wants to know if he will have to go home, because he is really afraid to. This relates to the motif of going home, which is a recurring theme during the novel. In fact, the novel is his slow return to his home, and he is wondering whether he should go home or stay outside and freeze.
"I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over," (Salinger, 1951, p. 19) writes Holden in the second chapter of the novel. After that, he questions nearly every taxi driver about it and finally ends up by the lagoon himself one night in contemplation (Salinger, 1951, p. 91). The question is really one for himself, and reflects a concern of Mr. Antolini's, which deals where a person can turn to when his environment can no longer support him. The desperation with which Holden attacks this question in the later questions demonstrates the desperation he feels to find someplace where he can belong. In the end, Holden realizes that the ducks go away and almost decides to do that with his destiny. This is a perfect example of interaction of environment, nature and the main character from an ecocritical approach. However, Holden finishes the novel with an implied commitment to changing his environment rather than abandoning it, a decision much nobler than the one the ducks chose.
The other two symbols, Jane Gallagher and the Museum of Natural History, both represent the motif of the past. Jane Gallagher was an old friend of Holden’s, and he mentions her many times during the story. He mentions that he will call her, but he never gets the guts to. She is an essential part of his past that he misses a lot, and he wants to go back and be with her again.
The Museum of Natural History represents an interesting aspect of his past. As Jane Gallagher makes Holden want to return to his past, the Museum of Natural History sort of changes his mind. He remembers how he used to go there all the time, and how he was different, but the wax figures were always the same. He realizes that he can’t go back in time, because he is not the same as he used to be. He also realizes that he will never be the same as he used to be. In this case environment again has a direct impact on Holden.
It goes without saying that J.D. Salinger’s use of symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye is very helpful in presenting hidden messages. He uses different symbols to use these messages, such as Jane, the Museum and the ducks. They all represent Holden, presenting the way he thinks, acts, and the way he is influenced by these things: “When the weather's nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie's grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice - twice - we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That's what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner - everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it. I know it's only his body and all that's in the cemetery, and his soul's in Heaven and all that crap, but I couldn't stand it anyway. I just wished he wasn't there.” (Salinger, 1951, p. 98)
As already been mentioned, the principal theme of the book is Holden's stance against phoniness. It is no coincidence that Holden's journeys take him through a cross-section of American society: the school, bars, city streets, family. Salinger tries to show how widespread this phoniness has become. Holden’s environment is dishonesty and false pretences, and throughout the book is frequently picking out the "phonies" he sees around him. There is evidence that Holden exhibits much of the same phoniness he accuses in others. Holden also puts on pretences, lies, and makes irrational and contradictory assumptions to mask his feelings and actions from others, which further alienates him from society. At the same time, the other point of view is that this is a misinterpretation of Holden's use of "phoniness", and that while he lies and exhibits other flaws, he doesn't fall into his own category. Possibly, the "phoniness" is about not being honest with yourself about your feelings of pain and disappointment. Holden's "phonies" rarely give the impression of admitting their flaws and insecurities, and this could be what he has in mind when he labels them as such. In contrast, though Holden labels other people as "phonies," Holden reveals much of his own carnality, showing himself to the readers as being self-righteous and judgmental. Sometimes, he himself can be a bit phony, such as the time he decides he's going to pretend to be a deaf-mute so he doesn't have to speak to anyone. Either way, Holden believes that he is honest with himself, and the reader, throughout the book.
At the same time, Holden's criticism is not often a good thing, and indeed it is this constant criticism which separates him from society and also results in some self-loathing. In demonstrating the effects of this detachment on Holden, Salinger encourages the building of human relationships. Holden hates movies and shows because they are larger than life, because they generate a sort of passiveness among society: “I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do” (Salinger, 1951, p. 117) He is depressed when someone says good-luck since the statement implies that fortune supersedes human effort.
Finally, another topic addressed in the novel is the one of childhood versus adulthood. Holden belongs in neither of these two worlds (as do some adolescents), and finds himself in a position to see which category he would rather choose. Towards the end of the novel his choice is to be neither immature, arguably the hindrance of childhood, nor phony, the evil of adulthood. As Salinger suggests, there is nothing wrong with growing up. There is something wrong with growing phony. That’s an important message the author tried to convey to its audience.
In conclusion, I should say that art is an attempt to capture the specific, and thus illuminate the general, the attitudes, influences and impacts. J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is journey of one individual, Holden Caulfield, into self-discovery. Portraying Holden, Salinger managed to capture the conflicts and identity crises which many young adults his age are caught in. Moreover, from an ecocritical perspective, the author depicted the interaction of nature, environment, technological advances and the main character as well as used various symbols to convey important messages to the readers.
Salinger, J.D. (1951) The catcher in the rye. Little, Brown and Company.
American Library Association. (2003) 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. Last updated April, 2003. Date accessed January 21, 2007.
Yardley, Jonathan. (2004) Mickey Tolchiner's Holden Caulfield, Aging Gracelessly. The Washington Post. Last updated October 19, 2004. Date accessed January 21, 2007. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43680-2004Oct18.html >
Crime Library. (2006) The man who shot John Lennon Crimelibrary.com. Last updated June 17, 2006. Date accessed May 24, 2007.